Last Night's TV: The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House, BBC4
A Home for Maisie, BBC2
Bored to Death, Sky Atlantic
To the hearth of the matter
Tuesday 12 April 2011
David Lloyd George wanted "homes fit for heroes" after the First World War, an admirable objective neatly expressed in what would much later be called a sound bite. But a later 20th-century Prime Minister, also with a constituency in Wales, showed that there is more to politics than sound bites. There is also pedantry and obscurantism.
"What I have done is to assemble a team of experts to give me a preliminary report by tomorrow on the factors that need to be taken into account," said Jim Callaghan, then Home Secretary, rather eerily presaging Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister. Callaghan was speaking in the 1960s after a gas explosion in a council block had killed four people.
By then, the Utopian ideal of decent state housing for the working classes, as championed by Lloyd George, had started to sour. The story was well explained by Michael Collins, himself a child of a big south London council estate, in The Great Estate: the Rise and Fall of the Council House. By the time Callaghan's successor as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, instituted her right-to-buy policy in 1980, the great vision was in its death throes, yet Collins asserted that the fatal dose of strychnine had actually been administered under Callaghan's Labour government three years earlier, when local authorities were told to prioritise the homeless as soon as council housing became available, overlooking local people already on waiting lists. This policy became open to abuse, sub-letting became the norm, and itinerant tenants, with no sense of belonging, further destabilised the estates that had been such a source of pride to the early settlers, as Collins described them.
Tragically, today's Coalition Government seems similarly unable to grasp the fact that nothing bolsters respect for one's surroundings so much as a feeling of permanent attachment to them. Council tenants are being made to reapply every two years to stay in their homes, legislation described as "iniquitous" by one of Collins's interviewees, the Liverpudlian screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. This fascinating documentary made it dispiritingly clear that the common man and woman, whether heroic or not, never gets to spend too long in Utopia. Great social initiatives are crafted by politicians – in this instance Lord Salisbury, who in 1883 invited a Royal Commission to look into the housing of the working classes – and later destroyed by them.
Still, Collins found plenty of witnesses to the golden era of council housing, and while some of their reminiscences were decidedly rose-tinted, it was easy enough to understand the reflection of another Liverpudlian, that he and his contemporaries, as children, benefited hugely from knowing, and being known by, everyone on their estate. The anonymity these days of gangs of children on street corners, he suggested, contributes mightily to anti-social behaviour. That, and the declining influence of the church, I might add. In the 1960s, my own mother ran a shop on Liverpool's famously tough Scotland Road, and recalls now that the local scallywags would laugh off any threat to speak to their parents, or to call the police, yet blanched at the mere mention of the priest.
There didn't seem any way of taming the disturbed young subject of A Home for Maisie. Taken away from her natural parents at the age of four, by social services concerned for her welfare, seven-year-old Maisie had lived with 10 families before ending up as a prospective adoptee with Sue and Jim, a saintly-seeming pair unable to have children of their own who had already adopted eight others, focusing on older kids from troubled backgrounds.
There were times when this documentary felt a little like an extended advertisement for adoption, not that many of us would be good or brave enough to take on Maisie, whose fierce, violent tantrums were mainly directed at Sue, for the sad, simple reason that it had always been mother figures who, by Maisie's perception, had let her down.
Clearly, the child needed some kind of psychotherapy, and got it at Family Futures, a remarkable organisation used to dealing with children so ill-treated that some of them had known sufficient neglect to eat their own nappies, or been abused to the point of being force-fed their own vomit. We never found out what particular horrors Maisie had been subjected to, but slowly she began to show the benefits of the therapy, just as the prospect arose of its funding being withdrawn. Without it, not even Sue and Jim were prepared to adopt her. She faced a future in "a secure therapeutic placement" costing almost £300,000 annually, for the want of between £15,000 and £50,000 a year to fund the Family Futures treatment. Mercifully, sanity prevailed.
A whole different perspective was cast on psychotherapy in Bored to Death, which, of all the fantastic new shows promised us by the fledgling Sky Atlantic, is the one that most lives up to its excitable billing. Every episode is like a perfect little Woody Allen movie, with Jason Schwartzman almost good enough as fretful writer and Allen-alike Jonathan Ames to stop his scenes with the glorious Ted Danson, playing his boss George, from being stolen from under his nose. Almost.
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